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Sony's PlayStation 4 Announcement: Only the Interesting Stuff

By Wesley Fenlon

Sony talks hardware, Gaikai streaming, and sharing with the PS4. We talk details.

Sony threw a great big shindig in New York on Wednesday to announce that, yes indeed, the PlayStation 4 is on its way. Sony's next-gen console, set for a release before the end of 2013, will show up again at E3 this summer. And that's a good thing, because Sony's two hour press conference was as defined by what Sony didn't show as what they did--namely the console itself and how much we'll be paying for one as the holiday season rolls around. Instead, Sony divided its time in front of thousands of online viewers between discussing some of the specifics of the new hardware and showing early footage of tech demos and in-development games. But let's cut through the cruft and talk about the things that interest us.

The Console Hardware

Hardware is what we've been waiting to hear about, and Sony jumped right into the details of the PlayStation 4's capabilities minutes into the conference. That includes an APU with x86 CPU cores--sure to please PC developers--and 8GB of shared system memory (typical of console architecture). Interestingly, Sony opted for speedy (and spendy) GDDR5 RAM typically reserved for high-end GPUs like Nvidia's 600 series videocards. We expected the next-gen consoles to use customized APUs--read more about them here.

A Sony press released issued after the conference further details the PS4's hardware:

  • 8-core x86-64 AMD Jaguar
  • 1.84 TFLOPS AMD Radeon graphics
  • 6x Blu-ray Drive
  • USB 3.0 ports
  • Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11n wireless
  • HDMI, analog AV out, optical audio

In addition to its primary APU, the PS4 includes a secondary chip designed just to handle video processing, which is a key component of the new system. Sony wants sharing video clips of games to be as natural and easy of sharing screenshots is today (presumably on the PC), and demonstrated being able to scroll through a play session, creating a clip of a chunk of gameplay, and sharing that clip online while continuing to play the game (which is where that secondary chip kicks in).

The New Dualshock Controller

Though Sony didn't show the console itself, they promised it included a built-in hard drive and revealed the new controller, which looks extremely similar to prototype images leaked onto the web last week. The classic Dualshock has been slightly tweaked to include a central touchpad, small "share" button, and redesigned (concave!) triggers and analog sticks. A "light bar" located on the top of the controller will differentiate player one from player two and so on.

Sony's Dualshock press release state the "light bar illuminates to match the color of characters in a game to offer a simpler, more friendly way to identify players, even when playing side by side. The light bar also changes patterns during gameplay to provide useful information to gamers, such as when a character is critically low on health or has taken major damage."

The classic Start and Select buttons are gone, replaced by an "options" button and the capabilities of the new touch screen.

The press release also reveal the controller has a built-in speaker, headset jack, and that Sony worked with "key partners in the development community to improve the feel of the left /right sticks and the trigger buttons" for "a much tighter sense of control over in-game actions."

A couple other important point about the new Dualshock: the classic Start and Select buttons are gone, replaced by an "options" button and the capabilities of the new touch screen. The capacitive screen supports two-point touch and can also be clicked down to serve as a button, so the controller hasn't actually lost any functionality compared to the old design; it' simply different (and weighs 18 grams more than the Dualshock 3).

PlayStation 4 Eye

A new camera peripheral--which looks an awful lot like the Kinect sensor bar--will be able to track the Dualshock 4's positioning. A game demonstration at the PS4 event also included the PlayStation Move, which may indicate the DualShock 4 and camera peripheral will work like existing Move controllers.

More details from the press release:

"PlayStation 4 Eye...incorporates two high-sensitive cameras that have wide-angle lenses with 85-degree diagonal angle views which can recognize the depth of space precisely. This enables PlayStation 4 Eye to cut out the image of player from background, or to grasp players’ position in front and behind, further broadening the ways to enjoy games...four microphones are also capable of accurate sound detection and source origination.

In addition, users will be able to login to their PS4 with face recognition and are capable of using their own body movements or voices to enjoy games more intuitively. Furthermore, PlayStation 4 Eye senses the color of Dualshock 4's light bar to judge the positions of multiple players, and set characters in the same positions or let a character talk to a particular player, enabling players to enjoy games in new way. PlayStation 4 Eye also supports PlayStation Move motion controller. It detects the motion of PS Move more precisely, and reflects players’ in-game motion more accurately than ever."

Gaikai, Streaming and Sharing

Since the PlayStation 4's architecture moves away from the Power architecture of the Cell, PS3 games will not work in the new console. This is not surprising. It's still bad news for gamers who prioritize backwards compatibility, though Sony does hope to offer a solution in the form of Gaikai, the company it bought in 2012. Gaikai, like OnLive, uses streaming technology to run software in the cloud and deliver it to a variety of devices, no matter their capabilities (so long as they can handle video streaming and have a healthy Internet connection, of course).

In the short term, Gaikai integration in the PS4 means a dramatically cooler PlayStation Store. Instead of downloading demos, gamers will be able to jump into any game and start playing almost instantly. In the long term, Sony says it hopes to have the entire library of PlayStation games--stretching from the PS1 up to new PS4 titles--available for play on a variety of platforms, including the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Those are big promises, and there's no telling how well streaming games will compare to playing local files, but it's a potentially killer feature. The challenge will be to adapt streaming servers to either efficiently emulate older PlayStation hardware or actually run PS hardware in a way that can be instanced for cloud streaming to gamers.

The PlayStation 4 will also support remote play with the Vita, much like the Wii U's off-screen play on the gamepad. It's another potentially exciting feature that will sink or swim based on latency, but Sony's serious about making immediacy a big part of the PlayStation 4 experience. Yet another example: downloadable games will be playable before the entire file is downloaded, much like streaming video will start rolling after a few seconds of buffering.

Sony didn't go into great detail about its plans for the future of its online platform, which is rumored to introduce a subscription fee like Xbox Live. Instead, they focused on social--being able to see what games your friends are buying and playing, spectating live game playthroughs, and streaming via a partnership with Ustream (sorry, Twitch fans). Facebook is also a part of Sony's master plan to spread video content among gamers. Sony led of its conference by calling the gamer, and not the living room, the center of the console ecosystem.

Thanks to its 8GB of RAM, the PS4 will be able to go to sleep and suspend gameplay, storing the play session in RAM, and resume without going through a lengthy boot-up or re-loading a game session.

And Sony's focus on social means much deeper integration of voice chat (a press release notes the system will ship with a "mono headset") and other features across games, which were previously limited by the PS3's 256MB of system RAM. The new UI resembles the more modern, flatter look of Microsoft's recent interfaces and the recently redesigned PSN store.

Wrapping up

The software Sony showed off at its press conference mostly consisted of tech demos and brief demos. E3 will probably bring with it longer demonstrations of games further along in development and an actual look at the console itself. The PS4 is rumored to be sold at $430 and $530, but we'll learn more about the system at the E3 conference this June.